ALBANY — Wednesday’s State of the State address by Gov. Andrew Cuomo exposed a divide as deep as ever between the priorities of Oswego County and upstate lawmakers and the largely liberal leaders of the state Legislature.
In his 90-minute, state Constitutionally mandated report to the combined New York State Assembly and Senate, Cuomo urged the state’s residents and officials to confront big, systemic problems. He called for “teaching our children … the beauty and strength of our diversity.” He grew loud and passionate condemning the recent crisis of anti-Semitic violence around New York City.
Cuomo wanted “the angry winds of fear and frustration” to give way to an “antidote” to cure “hate and discrimination.” The first chapter in a 302-page policy book is devoted to passing a $3 billion, so-called Restore Mother Nature Bond Act. The governor wants zero-carbon emissions by 2040, recreational adult-use marijuana, expanded tuition assistance to SUNY schools and more guaranteed rights for workers immersed in the “gig economy,” according to his speech and policy proposals.
Entitled “Making Progress Happen,” Cuomo’s 2020 State of the State address contained many goals but for Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, a number of pressing issues went by the wayside.
“We’re all interested in helping out our fellow man,” Barclay told The Palladium-Times as he made his way from Cuomo’s address at Empire State Plaza back to his office in the capitol. “I stand ready to work with the governor and we have issues that need to be addressed immediately.”
Officials from Cuomo’s office were quick to point out that Wednesday’s speech and policy releases represented but a first step in the three-term Democrat’s 2020 agenda. Barclay and others, however, were dismayed that criminal justice and bail reform were not specifically addressed.
“I was shocked that in an hour-and-a-half speech, there was no mention of bail reform,” Barclay said of recently enacted changes to state law that have significantly eased the practice of cash bail — largely by taking it out of the hands of the discretion of local judges, critics claim.
Barclay said as “violent criminals were being let back out on the street and putting public safety at risk,” the solution, to him, is clear.
“We need to repeal it and go back to the drawing board,” Barclay said.
Oswego County law enforcement leaders recently said the new bail reforms were influential in the Jan. 2 plea and sentencing of Central Square man Mathew LeBoeuf on manslaughter charges. LeBoeuf was accused of causing the death of two people — 42-year-old Robert Diffin and 59-year-old Michael Shane — in a September 2018 incident in West Monroe. Prosecutors were unable to pursue murder charges and there was concern from the victim’s families and local justice officials that LeBoeuf could be released.
“The new bail law absolutely played an important role in (the Jan. 2) decision,” Oswego County District Attorney Gregory Oakes told The Palladium-Times following LeBoeuf’s guilty plea on manslaughter charges and sentencing to 10 to 20 years in prison.
The Cuomo administration has shown willingness this week to acknowledge criticism of the reform, as have some legislative leaders. Whether any substantive rollbacks of the new laws is in the cards remains to be seen when the Legislature gets down to regular business starting Thursday.
Melissa DeRosa, top aide to Cuomo, said in an interview with NY1’s Errol Louis after the Wednesday’s address that bail reform is important and necessary but not, in her opinion, iron-clad as written.
“It’s wholly legitimate, and the governor has said this, that when we look at the law, we look at what it is that we enacted and ask our self and our partners in the Legislature, ‘are there ways to improve on that,’” said DeRosa. “And that is a discussion we’re going to be having.”
Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, who challenged Cuomo as Republican nominee in the 2018 governor’s race, said there was no excuse for bail reform not bearing a mention in Cuomo’s speech.
“As eloquent as Gov. Cuomo was in his denouncement of hate and anti-Semitism, his failure to mention the crisis surrounding bail reform is criminal,” said Molinaro, a former member of the state Assembly.
Cuomo earlier this week noted the bail laws just went into effect at the beginning of the month, and said “bail is predicated on wealth” and “bail reform is right.”
“If you have access to wealth, you make bail, if you don’t have access to wealth, you don’t make bail,” the governor said. “That’s not justice. Justice was never supposed to be who has money in their pockets gets out. But changing the system, which we started to do, is complicated and then has a number of ramifications. There’s no doubt this is still a work in progress and there are other changes that have to be made.”
While bail reform and changes to the statewide justice system are topical for the 2020 session, some discrepancies between Democrats and the GOP seem to carry over from year to year.
“We heard the governor say ‘spend this,’ and ‘spend that,’ spend, spend, spend,” said Assemblyman Mark Walczyk, R-Watertown. “But there’s a $6 billion budget gap, and the governor’s positions have me really concerned about unfunded mandates and shifting costs to local governments.”
Barclay was also disappointed the governor did not more fully address the reported $6 billion shortfall facing the state.
“[Cuomo] mentioned a lot of programs but we have to pay for it,” Barclay said. “With the budgetary situation we’re in, there’s nice rhetoric but we have to govern.”
State Sen. Patty Ritchie, R-Huevelton, said the state is facing “a difficult and growing budget,” which she called the “result of overspending by downstate-led majorities in both houses,” adding lawmakers must work together in a bipartisan way to address the state’s finances.